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At stake at the convention: The future of the B.C. NDP

While it may not yet be evident, the upcoming B.C. NDP leadership convention represents the most important decision the party has made in its recent history.

Pick the right leader and the NDP has a chance of winning the next election - a chance. But get it wrong and the NDP could suffer yet another devastating defeat at the polls, one that has the potential to be the death knell of the party itself.

It wasn't that long ago that the polls suggested the NDP would win in a landslide against the Liberals. But that was when the greatly unloved Gordon Campbell was still in charge of the governing party and the public was in full revolt over the implementation of the HST.

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Now that Mr. Campbell is gone and Christy Clark has taken over, public opinion appears to have swayed back in the Liberals' favour. This would suggest that the Liberals represent the public's default position, the party with which a majority generally feels most comfortable.

But you can only lose at the polls for so long before you become irrelevant, a political afterthought. (The NDP has only won three of the 22 elections it's contested.) And when that happens it's not uncommon for a new party to sprout up to fill the political void. That's what could happen if the NDP loses the next election, especially if it gets walloped.

It could set the stage for a fresh, modern, centre-left alternative to launch itself. A provincial version of the civic Vision Vancouver party, for example.

This is why the party's decision on April 17 is so pivotal. And why the most recent public-opinion polls should give the party hope and heartburn at the same time.

The latest Ipsos-Reid poll indicates only one of the four NDP candidates has made any kind of impression on the general public - Mike Farnworth. He holds wide leads over his two main rivals - Adrian Dix and John Horgan - on every question that counts.

In head-to-head matchups with Ms. Clark, for instance, Mr. Dix would get demolished (44 per cent of those polled said they would vote for Ms. Clark, compared to just 25 per cent for Mr. Dix). Likewise, Mr. Horgan wouldn't stand a chance against her (41 per cent said they'd vote for the premier compared to 21 per cent for Mr. Horgan).

Only Mr. Farnworth would make it close. Of those surveyed, 38 per cent said they would vote for Ms. Clark, compared to 32 per cent for Mr. Farnworth.

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On the question of which NDP candidate would be best able to inspire people to vote NDP, Mr. Farnworth again came out on top by a sizable margin - 25 per cent said the former NDP municipal affairs minister could get them to cast a ballot for his party, compared to just 8 per cent for Mr. Dix and 4 per cent for Mr. Horgan.

During the Liberal leadership race, it was Ms. Clark who consistently held a wide edge over her rivals in any polling that was done. It's been the same for Mr. Farnworth during the NDP campaign. The choice of Ms. Clark so far appears to have been a winning move for the Liberals.

Will the NDP seize on the same opportunity?

That is far from certain.

It's generally agreed that Mr. Farnworth and Mr. Dix are one-two in the race - not necessarily in that order. Mr. Dix's platform reflects the ideological tastes of those on the left wing of the party. And there are some who believe that in order to win the next election, it's these people and others who share their political views that the NDP needs to excite in order to win.

While there are others who believe that the NDP needs to widen its tent, attract more voters from that mushy middle in order to breakthrough and declare victory on a regular basis. That would reflect Mr. Farnworth's thinking.

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It's a critical choice. If the NDP voters choose Mr. Dix and he gets wiped out in a showdown with Ms. Clark, it will be a long time, if ever, before the NDP recovers. If a Mike Farnworth-led NDP gets trounced by the Liberals, the consequences would be much the same.

At the very least, the NDP would have to rebrand itself, possibly under a new name. Right now the party is in danger of becoming a version of its federal counterpart: an institution that has no realistic shot of forming government.

That's why this leadership convention has so much riding on it.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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